For years Apple has insisted that touchscreens are for smartphones and tablets, not laptops. But according to a report from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, Apple officials may have changed their views: the company is said to be working on MacBook Pro laptops with touchscreen OLED displays that could launch in a few years.
While some folks might see that as an about face, there are plenty of reasons that the move makes more sense for Apple now than it would have in the past.
Thirteen years ago Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said touchscreen notebooks were “ergonomically terrible,” because “touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical” and that your arm would get tired if you had to reach up to touch the display.
At the time he got plenty of criticism from those who pointed out that touchscreens don’t necessarily replace trackpads or keyboards on laptops, so it’s not like you’d be lifting your arm all day. And he was also clearly ignoring the possibility of convertible notebooks that could also be used in tablet mode.
But it also made plenty of sense for Apple to resist putting touchscreens on its laptops at the time, because the company had launched its first touchscreen tablet the same year, and the iPad was running a modified version of the mobile iPhone operating system rather than the desktop operating system that powers Apple’s Mac computers. Not only did Apple want to keep those product lines separately in order to sell customers two devices instead of one, but the company also had two different visions for how apps should look and function: desktop apps were designed for keyboard and mouse or trackpad input and mobile apps were designed for touch.
Things have changed since over the past decade though. The lines between desktop and mobile have gotten blurrier. Many modern apps, websites, and web apps are designed to work well on small screens or large, with or without touch. That means they can shift their layouts between multi-column or single-column views depending on screen size. Menus, buttons, and other navigation elements are large enough to touch with your fingers.
Meanwhile mobile devices have gotten increasingly powerful and software developers have taken advantage of that fact to bring the sort of apps and games to smartphones and tablets that would have once been reserved for laptops and desktops.
Then Apple went and blurred the lines itself a few times. The company added support for running iOS apps on macOS after it began shipping Macs with ARM-based chips. But the experience of running an app built for touchscreen devices on a non-touch laptop is rather wonky since it requires extra steps like pressing and holding the Option key to use a trackpad as a virtual touchscreen.
A few years ago Apple even started releasing iPad Pro tablets with the exact same processor used in the latest Mac computers, prompting me to wonder why the heck you could run iOS apps on a Mac, but you couldn’t run macOS on an iPad. The only reason I could come up with at the time was that Apple didn’t want to give iPad customers one less reason to buy a MacBook.
So what’s changed? Not much, really. But while Apple has a reputation for delivering game-changing hardware, the company often does that by moving slowly to adopt new technologies. Apple wasn’t the first company to release an MP3 player, but the iPod line of devices quickly became nearly synonymous with the space. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone and the iPad wasn’t the first tablet, but they quickly became some of the most popular.
PC makers have been offering touchscreen laptops for years, and apple has had the benefit of watching the space from the sidelines… and dabbling in bringing touch to Macs with the introduction of a Touch Bar for MacBook Pro laptops in 2016 (it was discontinued with the launch of 2021 models).
At the very least, bringing touchscreens to future MacBooks would make it a lot easier to use iOS apps on Apple laptops. But a growing number of websites, web apps, and native apps would also probably play well with touch.
One thing Apple appears unlikely to do anytime soon is merge its operating system: Bloomberg reports that Apple still plans to use iPadOS for iPads and macOS for Macs.